Humans are naturally social beings—we evolved to form close relationships and build community because when we work together in numbers, we have a better chance of survival. As a result, our brains are wired to find pleasure and safety in different types of intimate relationships.
Today, intimate relationships continue to be vital to our holistic health.
Whether you currently have a significant other in your life or not, keep in mind that intimate relationships take many forms. While having romantic or sexually intimate partners is beneficial when there is trust and a sense of safety, for many, the social and emotional bonds provided by non-sexual relationships are equally, if not more, important to mental and social wellbeing.
This article describes the role of intimacy from a health and wellness perspective and summarizes the research on how intimacy, or lack thereof, affects human health.
Intimacy and Social Life as Pillars of Health and Wellness
Intimacy and social life are essential to individual, partnership, and community health and wellness. The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Intimate relationships and social networks are essential to social wellbeing.
Wellness is often better understood as a process rather than a state, but it also includes social and interpersonal wellness as a central aspect. More specifically, wellness is an active process through which people become more aware of, and make choices toward, a more satisfying existence.
One of the seven dimensions of wellness is interpersonal and social wellness. Social and interpersonal wellness refers to “the daily interactions you have with others, their quality, and personal social skills. This dimension of wellness also addresses the human desire for a sense of belonging and community contribution.”
Some of the qualities and behaviors associated with interpersonal wellness include:
- Communication skills
- A capacity for intimacy
- The ability to establish and maintain satisfying relationships
- The ability to cultivate a support system of friends and family
The above definitions and associated qualities highlight that fostering intimacy and social life is about cultivating the capacity to be intimate and actively contributing to the vibrancy of social networks and communities.
Different Types of Intimacy
Intimacy often connotes images of romantic relationships, but it also occurs in close friendships and family relationships. There are four basic types of intimacy, and feeling in a positive place socially often results in having people with whom you can experience the different types of intimacy, but not necessarily all simultaneously. You may also experience different types of intimacy with the same person, which often occurs in romantic relationships.
The four basic types of intimacy are:
- Experiential intimacy: When people bond during leisure activities or hobbies. This often occurs with friends who meet for an activity they enjoy or the bonds form during teamwork. It can also refer to when people bond over similar past experiences, such as growing up in the same town or having had a similar childhood experience.
- Emotional intimacy: When people feel safe sharing all types of feelings with each other and even talking through them
- Intellectual intimacy: When people feel comfortable sharing and discussing ideas and opinions, even when they disagree
- Sexual intimacy: When people engage in sensual or sexual activities
How Intimacy Affects Our Health and Wellbeing
In research conducted by Stadler et al., the team recruited 82 committed couples to report general symptoms of physical intimacy felt throughout the day. They found that close relationships exert influence on health in daily life.
The team also reviewed research on the effect of close relationships on health in daily life. Some of the findings are summarized below.
Close intimate relationships, such as spousal relationships, close friendships, and social support groups, and family, have an impact on symptoms associated with heart health. Below are some telling study conclusions:
- A greater frequency of daily interpersonal stress (the stress you feel as a result of interacting or thinking about the other person) was associated with higher levels of C-reactive protein, which is an inflammatory indicator of cardiovascular health.
- During social interactions, individuals lower in anxious attachment showed lower blood pressure.
- Adolescents who tend to avoid intimacy exhibit increased blood pressure in response to social conflict.
- Greater social interaction with a partner was associated with reduced ambulatory blood pressure compared to social interactions with other individuals.
- Individuals with larger social networks had lower blood pressure.
- Married couples in high-quality relationships have lower blood pressure than single people and married couples in low-quality relationships. However, single people had lower blood pressure than married couples in low-quality relationships.
- People had lower blood pressure after having participated in a training to enhance couple communication compared to before.
- Regular interaction with family members and spouses was associated with lower blood pressure.
- Men with better marital adjustment and more frequent spousal interaction were associated with lower atherosclerosis markers.
- Women with more frequent social interaction were associated with lower atherosclerosis markers.
Brain and Mental Health
The studies mentioned here evaluated neuroendocrine processes, which are those that involve hormones that affect mood, emotions, and cognitive processes like thinking and concentration. Below are the findings.
- A higher average of feeling lonely/sad/overwhelmed was associated with a higher cortisol awakening response; feeling more lonely/sad/overwhelmed than usual the day before was associated with a higher cortisol awakening response the next day.
- Positive relationship functioning was associated with higher morning cortisol levels, which influences productivity and energy, and a steeper decline in cortisol throughout the day, which promotes rest and sleep.
- Intimacy in everyday life was associated with reduced salivary cortisol secretion, which is a measure of stress.
- Higher levels of long-term loneliness had higher stress response and stress markers.
- People who participated in “Couple Contact Enhancement” intervention had greater increases in salivary oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone associated with feelings of love, emotional investment, and long-term connection.
- For every additional hour of work a person or their partner performed, the person’s total cortisol concentration (an indicator of stress) increased, and with every hour of housework the partner performed, it decreased.
- A greater quality of social support was associated with lower cortisol concentrations.
Sleep, Pain, and Other Symptoms
Only a handful of studies focused on the influence of the quality of close relationships on sleep, pain, and symptoms not related to a disease, such as headaches, rashes, digestive symptoms, weakness, and increased heart rate (these are also called somatic symptoms). Below are some of the most significant findings.
- Women, but not men, who reported higher-quality and more meaningful social interactions, less loneliness, and less fear of negative evaluation also reported fewer daily somatic symptoms.
- Wives, but not husbands, with higher satisfaction, reported fewer daily symptoms.
- Lonely individuals had poorer sleep efficiency and more time awake after sleep onset than individuals who did not feel lonely.
- Women slept better on nights when they perceived less negative interactions with their partners during the day.
- Men slept better on nights when their partners noted increased positive interactions that day.
- Patients with osteoarthritis who sought emotional support one day experienced less pain the following day.
- Among patients with rheumatoid arthritis, day-to-day satisfaction with their spouses helped to reduce the likelihood of feeling overwhelmed and helpless when dealing with pain and helped protect against the detrimental effects of pain.
Intimacy is often viewed as a purely romantic experience. However, intimacy takes many forms and is experienced in any close relationship. The four types of intimacy are experiential intimacy, like what you might share with a friend you met at a book club; emotional intimacy, like what you might experience with someone who you think won’t judge you when you speak about how you feel; intellectual intimacy, like what you might share with a business partner; and sexual intimacy, which is what you share with a sexual partner.
Intimacy is a vital element of social and interpersonal health. It’s also essential to your physical health. Healthy close relationships can help to promote cardiovascular health, mental health, and sleep.
To have sound social and interpersonal wellness, it is important to cultivate an ability to engage in intimate relationships, meaning being willing to be receptive to what others want to contribute to the relationship while also being willing to reciprocate.